By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With a federal change expected to lead to a surge in migrants crossing the country’s southern border, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed a controversial bill that targets illegal immigration.
The bill (SB 1718), which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed during the session that ended last week, includes stepping up requirements on businesses to check the immigration status of workers, cracking down on people who bring undocumented immigrants into Florida and collecting data about whether hospital patients are in the country legally.
It is part of a series of steps that DeSantis and other Republican leaders have taken in recent years aimed at undocumented immigrants. It also comes as DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, blasts federal border policies.
“This is just chaos,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing event in Jacksonville. “We are supposed to be the world’s leading superpower, and yet we can’t even maintain control of our own southern border. The Mexican drug cartels have more to say about what goes on at the southern border than our own U.S. government does.”
But the bill drew heavy opposition from Democratic lawmakers and other groups that said it would hurt migrants and people who provide assistance. As an example, opponents said migrants might not seek needed hospital care because of concerns about being questioned about their immigration status.
Hope CommUnity Center, an Apopka organization that provides services to immigrants, issued a statement Wednesday expressing concerns about the hospital requirement and other parts of the bill.
“Mr. DeSantis and his legislators are willfully ignorant of our immigration system,” Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, the center’s executive director, said in the statement. “Undocumented immigrants want nothing more than to come out of the shadows. But the system is a dysfunctional maze that Washington refuses to fix. The Florida Legislature is punishing the wrong people for that and, in the process, dehumanizing their existence.”
The bill includes:
— Requiring all businesses with 25 or more employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers. Since 2021, such businesses have been required to use E-Verify or what are known as I-9 forms.
— Toughening criminal penalties for transporting undocumented immigrants into Florida. While the bill indicates the changes are aimed at curbing human smuggling, opponents raised the prospect of family members and groups such as churches being prosecuted for transporting immigrants into the state.
— Requiring hospitals to ask patients about whether they are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally. Hospitals would be required to submit reports about the responses to the state.
— Requiring law-enforcement agencies to take DNA samples from people being held on federal immigration detainers. The samples would be sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
— Providing $12 million to the state Division of Emergency Management for the “Unauthorized Alien Transport” program, which could transport undocumented immigrants to other states. The program would be similar to the DeSantis administration’s controversial flights last year of 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
DeSantis signed the bill the day before the Biden administration plans to end what is known as a “Title 42” public-health order. That order, which stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic, provided a way to help expel migrants.
But with the end of the order, officials are preparing for a surge of migrants crossing the border.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.